The twentieth century has seen numerous swift, questionable rises to power throughout the world. Let’s take a look at one such individual: Idi Amin, who has been called The Butcher of Uganda. Specifically, let’s investigate his military background, his reign of terror, and his eventual demise.
Idi Amin Dada Oumee was born in 1925 near Koboko, located in the West Nile Province of Uganda, near the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan. During childhood, he received very little formal education, instead focusing—and excelling—at sports activities. His parents separated shortly after his birth, leaving him to be raised by his mother: a woman who practiced sorcery and was a camp follower of the King’s African Rifles, a part of the British colonial army.
Rising Through the Ranks
In service, Amin quickly gained a reputation as a very conscientious soldier; he was an excellent marksman, had spectacular eyesight, and enthusiastically carried out orders. Between 1951 and 1960, he also received acclaim as Uganda’s light heavyweight boxing champion. Although only a sergeant and capable of speaking very little English, his British superiors enthusiastically intended on seeing to it that he rose up quickly through the ranks. By 1961, he had already reached the rank of lieutenant. This was a significant achievement, because he represented one of only two native Ugandans to reach this rank during British rule.
However, not everything about Amin’s military prowess was positive. Army officials also noticed a developing reputation for cruelty. On multiple occasions, he was almost let go due to excessive brutality while conducting enemy interrogations. In 1962, he was ordered to suppress and disarm a group of cattle raiders in northeastern Uganda. During this operation (now known as the Turkana Massacre), he allegedly had these tribesmen tortured, beaten to death, and even buried alive.
While one would think actions of this sort should lead to reprimand, Amin received nopunishment. At that time, Uganda’s independence was only months away, and he was never court-martialed. Although the British governor told new Ugandan Prime Minister Milton Obote about his actions, Obote chose to overlook the entire situation. He quickly gained Obote’s favor. In 1963, he became a major; and by 1964, he had reached the rank of colonel as well as deputy commander of the air force and army. According to his former Top Cabinet Minister Kyemba, Obote soon relied on Deputy Commander Amin even more than his army commander, Brigadier Shaban Opolot.
In 1966, Amin and Obote were involved in illegal activities with Congolese rebels. As the rebels started losing territorial control of some areas, he supplied them with arms in exchange for truckloads of gold and ivory they had seized. He then sold the gold and ivory, eventually banking around one million dollars. The fact that Prime Minister Obote and him were involved in this obviously didn’t sit well with Ugandan President Sir Edward Mutesa. Quickly, Obote sprang into action. To protect Amin and himself, Obote suspended the constitution, arrested half of the cabinet, and made himself president for life. With King Mutesa pushed out of his palace by military force and into exile, Amin was now major-general and chief of the army and air force. Essentially, instead of being punished for the gold and ivory scandal, he was now second in command of the entire Ugandan nation.
On January 25, 1971, while President Obote was attending a Commonwealth conference in Singapore, General Idi Amin led a military coup into the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Tanks and soldiers filled the streets, Entebbe airport was sealed off, and major road links were blocked. Crowds of Ugandans danced in the streets, and President Amin was now in control. His new reign was celebrated for weeks, and he was greeted with delight throughout most of Uganda. One city even gave him nine hundred head of cattle as a gift. Not one to underemphasize, his self- proclaimed title was said to be, “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” At first having him in office seemed like a breath of fresh air. He appointed well-qualified individuals to his cabinet, yet never followed their advice. He continued to tour cities, promising hospitals, roads, and many other improvements. This seemed to provide a false sense of security and confidence to many Ugandans.
Most inhabitants—even some of his own officials—were unaware that the legacy of torture and murder had already begun. In the short span of three months, he had enlisted ten thousand new soldiers. During his first year as president, the main targets were the Langi and Acholi troops, which had been loyal to Obote. It is estimated that 6,000 of the army’s 9,000 soldiers were executed during 1971. There are two reasons why he never wrote out any of his orders for torture or murder: he supposedly could not write, plus verbal orders allowed him to later deny personal involvement, if necessary. Instead, euphemisms such as, “Give him the VIP treatment,” were issued, which meant to administer torture followed by death.
Although it may be difficult to believe, up to this point the majority of murders and tortures were still not known by most in Uganda. In addition, the economy was in relatively good shape. Coffee was Uganda’s major export, with the United States, Great Britain, and Kenya all providing a steady stream of orders. To most people, everything seemed completely fine. Then, on August 4, 1972, Amin announced to his troops that he had a dream in which God instructed the 50,000 Asians out of Uganda within ninety days. Not popular with the Africans, the Asian community was Uganda’s economy. The Asians controlled most of the factories, plantations, and industries. They were the majority of the doctors, lawyers, accountants, and engineers. However, to the indigenous Ugandans, they were described as, “The Jews of East Africa.” Because of this, most people supported his proclamation of a stronger, blacker nation.
Daily radio updates counted down to the November 8 deadline. As the mass majority of Asians left, a stop was put on their bank accounts, and they were given a mere one hundred dollar personal allowance. He told the Asians they could bundle up some of their personal belongings to be airlifted to their new regions, however the possessions would never end up being sent. Although he thought native control was the right choice, the new, local business owners lacked experience. Corruption and mismanagement caused many businesses to fail, shortages developed, and prices increased.
Around this same time, former president Milton Obote had staged a failed coup attempt from neighboring Tanzania. Kyemba states, “This invasion was a farce. There were only a thousand men.” Although Obote’s effort posed no real threat, it only increased Amin’s overall brutality, as well as his paranoia. He launched a massive campaign of persecution against rival ethnic groups and Obote supporters, murdering between 100,000 and 500,000 people—most estimates state a figure of 300,000 people. Entire villages were eradicated. In one part of the Nile River, bodies fed to alligators were so abundant that they clogged the intake ducts of a nearby dam. By now, most of the country’s budget was going towards the military, with very little utilized for civil upkeep. A visit to Libya also garnished immediate support from Colonel Quathafi. Shortly thereafter, Amin renounced ties with Israel and sided with Islamic countries in the Middle East over possession of the Palestine region. He also made anti-Semitic comments, even stating he admired Adolf Hitler for his persecution of six million Jews.
Ending the Reign of Terror
How much longer could this madman remain in power? Idi Amin’s reign of terror lasted through much of the 1970s, but it was about to finally end. In an attempt to cover up an army mutiny, he went on the offensive and invaded Tanzania. Through the Tanzanian army’s quick mobilization and the assistance of Ugandan rebels, his government was overthrown in early 1979. He fled, taking his four wives, may of his thirty mistresses, and about twenty of his children to Libya. He was quickly forced to relocate again, and moved to Iraq for a short time, until finally settling in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He was allowed to stay in exile in Saudi Arabia, as long as he stayed out of politics.
On August 16, 2003, Idi Amin died in Jeddah. In a coma since July 18, he had suffered from hypertension, fatigue, and kidney failure. The cause of death was stated as multiple organ failure. Shortly before his death, family members requested Amin be allowed to return to Uganda so he could die there, but the Ugandan government stated he would face immediate arrest upon arrival. Since Muslims are buried immediately after death, he was instead buried in Jeddah. It is extremely unfortunate—yet also remarkable—that one man could stir up such emotion and obedience into others.